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About cake

Today, I thought it would be nice to talk about cake.

Actually, that’s a lie. Today, I thought it would be nice to eat cake. That’s all. Anything else is completely optional. I’m easy to please, as long as there is cake around.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about cake. This is not an unusual condition for me, but it happens particularly often when I’m feeling frazzled or tired or harried, right around the same time that I start listening to the easy listening station on the car radio and feeling genuinely soothed by it. It’s pretty clear that you need a good night’s sleep when “Peaceful Easy Feeling” comes on the stereo and you almost choke up, sitting there behind the wheel of your Honda with its missing hubcaps, singing a mournful duet with Glenn Frey as you thump-thump over the speed bumps of residential Seattle. It is also pretty clear that you need cake.

The cake up there, the very plain-looking one in the pictures, is not a beauty, but it’s a bang-up solution to the problem. It’s a recipe that I’ve been playing with and tweaking for the past few weeks or so, inspired in part by Miss Edna Lewis’s wonderful busy-day cake. It is my personal conviction that we all need some sort of busy-day cake in our repertoire, and though I love Miss Lewis’s take on the theme, this one, I think, will be mine. It’s rustic and coarse-crumbed, almost like a muffin, with a faint whiff of nutmeg and whole wheat. I’m calling it an “everyday cake,” and Brandon would like me to clarify that, as cakes go, it’s not strictly dessert material. It’s a snack, ideally, something you would eat with tea or coffee, iced or hot, in the hours between lunch and dinner. It’s homely and humble and not very sweet, and it’s deeply reassuring. If you really know what’s good for you, you’ll slice off a wedge, pick it up between your thumb and index finger, lean over the sink, and eat it in approximately four, maybe five, large bites. Pay no attention to the plate and fork in the top photo. I don’t know what I was thinking. All you need is the cake.

Everyday Cake
Inspired by Edna Lewis’s Busy-Day Cake

I don’t ordinarily like baking with whole wheat flour, to be perfectly honest. I am told that this constitutes some sort of major personality flaw, like finding real enjoyment in making babies cry, but I can’t help it. However, that said, when I set out to make this cake, whole wheat flour somehow seemed right. It seemed fitting for an everyday sweet, the kind of thing you would want to snack on, rather than save for after dinner. I had a bag of white whole wheat flour in the fridge, so that’s what I used, and it’s a great product. I combined it with regular all-purpose flour, using equal amounts of each, and the finished cake has a subtly nutty flavor and a hearty texture, which is exactly what I was after.

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
A few gratings of nutmeg, or to taste
½ cup whole milk or plain yogurt, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter or cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, blend the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. One by one, add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract, and beat to blend.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

Add about ¼ of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and beat on low speed to incorporate. Add 1/3 of the milk or yogurt, and beat again. Add the remaining flour mixture in three more doses, alternating each time with a bit of milk or yogurt, and beating to just combine. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl and stir to incorporate any flour not yet absorbed.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly across the top. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (This cake seems to want to brown quickly on top, so after about 20 minutes, you might want to peek into the oven and tent the cake with aluminum foil, if necessary.) Cool in the pan on a rack for 20 minutes; then remove the sides of the pan and continue to cool.

Serve at room temperature. Or slightly warm, if you want.

Note: I store this cake at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap. It’s very good on the first day, but I like it even better on the second. By the third day, it starts to dry out, but it still tastes good.


I get a glimpse

Restaurant-wise, we are entering what I call Crackdown Mode. That sounds sort of scary, I realize, as though it might involve body armor and high-tech weaponry, but what it actually means is even scarier. It means that this restaurant, this Delancey thing, is now a full-time job. Not just for Brandon, but for me, too.

It feels good. It feels good to be caught up in its momentum, pulled along by something so tangible and so big. But it also feels like diving into a murky pool, enormous and very deep, and I can’t see a damned thing. I know I have to jump in, and I want to jump in, but let me tell you, it is dark down there. I hope that doesn’t sound too depressing, because I don’t mean it that way. What I mean is that it’s consuming. It’s complete immersion. We move by feeling our way. And sometimes, every now and then, I get a glimpse of what it will look like in the end, when it’s finished and open and full of noise and food and fire in the oven, and it makes me so proud and so excited that I don’t know whether to grin, or sob, or both. And the afterglow of that lights the way through the muck for a while, until I get a glimpse again.

This morning, we went to our friend Olaiya’s house and sat around her table for four hours, making lists and dividing up tasks. It was first official Delancey Planning Meeting. I don’t know how we made it this far without one. Olaiya is my role model in the departments of neatness and personal organization, and she has tons of experience in the restaurant industry, and she is also, most notably, a saint. She’s going to be our right hand woman for the next couple of months, as we get Delancey up and running. Every day, we get a lot done, but somehow, there’s still more to do. I’m convinced that our to-do lists secretly meet up and breed each night, while we sleep. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s some of what we did today, in addition to our meeting:

Chose colors for the façade and front door
Decided on the hallway light fixture
Chose the dining room floor color
Finalized the wall color for one bathroom
Bought more paint
Sold some equipment that we don’t need
Made a mockup of a light fixture, using a cider jug and an Edison 1910 bulb
Finalized the list of sodas that we will carry
Planned the opening
Decided how much staff to open with
Had an electrician rewire and put in light switches

I know I said a few weeks ago that we were aiming to open in mid-May, but we’ve now moved on to look toward June, with our fingers firmly crossed. If I were my mother, this is the part when I would smile and shrug and say cheerfully, Tune in for the next episode! I love it when she says that.

I thought you might like to see some photos of the latest developments. To wit, the bar stools up there on the left. Most of the restaurant equipment and decor is secondhand or made by us, but the bar stools are new, a splurge from Design Within Reach. To the right of them are a few of the chairs for the dining room. They’re mid-century Danish, found on Craigslist and elsewhere. Of the rest of the dining chairs (stacked just out of view), about half came from Sunset Bowl, our neighborhood’s historic bowling alley, which closed last April after more than fifty years of business. They’re mid-century teak Thonet chairs, and after Brandon bought them at auction, our friends Shauna and Dan let us store them in their garage for an entire year. You can see them, scrubbed clean and draped with plastic sheeting to ward off dust, in the second photo above. And the table bases, a few of which you can see on the right immediately above, came from a local restaurant that lost its lease and closed a few months ago. I like to think we’re resurrecting them.

Also, the dishwasher has now been installed. And the dishwashing sink, the prep sink, two floor sinks, the mop sink, and the hand sink. Restaurants require a ridiculous number of sinks. Brandon wanted me to do an entire post on the sinks and title it “Sink or Swim.” You can see how excited I was about that idea.

I am, however, very excited to announce that we have completed seven of what will be eleven concrete tabletops. Each one requires an entire bag of cement, a little over four quarts of water, and a lot of sweat. That’s Brandon up there, patting the wet concrete into its melamine mold. And below, he is unscrewing the sides of the mold to release the tabletop that we poured the night before. I just noticed that he is wearing the same shirt in both shots, which means that he probably never took it off. Fresh clothes are sometimes less important than the to-do list.

Once each slab of concrete is dry, it gets painted with several coats of sealant. Then it is nestled into a natural steel frame, and any gaps around the edges are filled with silicone or resin. Then the whole thing gets glued to a piece of plywood, which is then screwed to the table base. Like so:

We got the idea for the table design from Rose Bakery, in Paris. (If you have its cookbook Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, you can see the tables in a few of the photos, particularly on pages 57 and 90.) Here’s what the edge of the table looks like from above.

This particular concrete slab was one of the early ones, and it has more bubbles than the recently completed specimens. Brandon has gotten to be quite a pro at working with concrete. I had no idea he was so handy.

And here’s the oven façade, or what will soon be the oven façade, once it’s covered over with tile board and then Heath seconds. The tiles will be a sort of brownish gray. And to the right there, just behind the façade, will be the salad station. Beyond that will be prep tables, and a fridge, and storage space. Soon.

And sometimes Brandon fires up the oven, even though we’re too distracted to make much from it. We fire it up anyway, and we make some pizzas, and we stare at the flames for a while, and I take some pictures, and then we go to sleep. And then we do it all again.


Its name is farro

As I type this, it is cloudy again, and cold. The weather today leaves much to be desired. Such as some sunlight, for starters, and warmth, and caramelized onions. Right now, I really, really desire caramelized onions.

I know that this picture doesn’t seem to have much to do with onions, nor does it even seem appetizing, I imagine, but bear with me for a second. What you see there is my new ideal lunch: warm farro with French lentils, caramelized onions, and feta. It’s ugly as sin, and it’s also completely delicious. It’s a little like a lentil salad and a lot like mujadara, and if I could somehow ensure - maybe through magic, or fervent prayer - that there would always be a bowl of it in the fridge, I would gladly eat it every single day.

I don’t know about you, but I find this time of year to be uniquely annoying. It’s not winter, but it’s also not quite spring. There are artichokes and asparagus, but aside from that, it’s hard to know what to eat. So I go to the pantry, and I open it and sigh, and then I bring out the grains and legumes, the humble arsenal of the in-between season. Usually, I make the aforementioned mujadara, a soulful rice dish with green lentils and lots of caramelized onions. It is very, very difficult to beat. More recently, I also tried this recipe for koshary, a close cousin of mujadara that includes some seared macaroni, and it was pretty wonderful, too. (In particular, you should try Francis’s method for cooking rice. It’s perfect.) But then I found something to beat them both, and its name is farro.

Farro, the Italian name for emmer wheat, has been cropping up all over the place lately, so you’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t, it’s a wheat grain - a kernel, really - and it looks a little bit like barley. Whole grains are making a big comeback right now - quinoa, bulgur, whathaveyou - but to tell you the truth, farro is the only one that I actually get excited about. It’s chewy and slightly sweet and has a big, nutty flavor, and it can be used in salads, soups, riffs on risotto, and about a million other things. Which is where mujadara comes in. The other day, when I went to make mujadara, I was feeling a little frisky, and instead of pulling out the usual bag of rice, I decided to try using farro. It is a sad day, I realize, when a person comes to associate the words ‘feeling frisky’ with eating boiled wheat kernels, but I am not ashamed to admit it. It was fantastic.

Especially with some feta, crumbled or strewn in hunks, on top. And hot sauce, for dining companions named Brandon.

Though it may appear otherwise, this bowl is not wearing a halo over there on the left side - that’s just an odd play of light on Brandon’s jeans - but it might as well have been. This stuff is worthy of halos and more. The lentils are earthy and rich, and the farro is plump and toasty, and then there are the sweet, sticky onions, and those three alone would be fine, but with some tangy feta on top, it deserves a lot of superlatives. It’s similar to mujadara, for sure, but it tastes entirely different from the usual rice-based specimen. It has a nuttier, more complex, more satisfying chew, and basically, I would like some right this minute, at 9:32 am, only an hour after breakfast. That pretty well sums up how I feel about it.

P.S. San Francisco! I’m coming to you again! This Saturday, April 18, at 3:00 pm, I will be at Omnivore Books on Food for a reading and signing. If you’ve never been to Omnivore, or if you have, please stop by. It’s an amazing little store, and I’m honored to do an event there.

Warm Farro with French Lentils, Caramelized Onions, and Feta

What follows is closer to a set of guidelines than it is to a real recipe, so do with it what you will. The most important part is the onions: be sure to take your time with them, and stir them frequently. Make this on a Sunday, or on a weeknight when you have some extra time to cook.

We eat this as a main dish, but it would be a nice side for almost any roasted or grilled meat. It is also delicious - and prettier - with some cooked kale or chard stirred in. Just boil the greens in nicely salted water for about 5 to 7 minutes, until tender but not mushy; then drain them, squeeze all the water out, coarsely chop, and add to the farro mixture.

And about farro: most of what is sold in the U.S. - I’ve found it at Whole Foods and fancy grocery stores, or you can get it from ChefShop - is grown in Italy, but there are also some domestic producers, like Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, Washington. It is usually sold semi-pearled (semiperlato), meaning the some of the bran has been removed. If you buy whole farro, though, it will likely need to soak overnight before cooking - rather than a brief soak for semi-pearled - and will need to cook for 30 to 45 minutes more.

2 medium or large yellow onions
Olive oil
Kosher salt
¾ cup farro
½ cup French lentils, carefully picked through for pebbles and debris
Feta cheese
Hot sauce, such as sambal oelek (optional)
Lemon (optional)

First, the onions: slice them thinly. When I caramelize onions, I slice mine about ¼-inch thick, and I slice them lengthwise, from top to bottom - going “with the grain,” so to speak - so that they hold their shape. (If this makes no sense, check out the first two minutes of this video, from Fine Cooking. It’s a great demonstration.)

Pour a few glugs of olive oil into a large (12-inch) skillet. You want to be generous here, nearly coating the bottom of the skillet. Warm the oil over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, dump in the onions. They should sizzle. Stir them to coat, and then add a couple of pinches of salt. (Some people say that this causes the onions to fall apart more quickly, but I do it anyway. I like that it causes them to release some water, so that they stay moister, and it seems to make them caramelize more evenly, too.) Reduce the heat to low or medium-low, and continue to cook slowly, stirring occasionally. First, they will soften a bit; then they will go a little golden; and then they will begin to caramelize. It takes a long time to do this properly, so be patient – and stir regularly, especially as they take on color. My last batch of caramelized onions took about an hour and a half. When they’re done, they will have shrunk down in volume by quite a lot, and they should be a deep amber color and almost translucent.

Meanwhile, once you’ve got the onions started, put the farro in a medium bowl, add cold water to cover, and set it aside to soak for 30 minutes. Then drain it, turn it out into a medium saucepan, and add 3 cups of cold water and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer until tender but still a little chewy, about 30 minutes. It’s up to you, really, how “done” you want your farro. At 20 or 25 minutes, mine is usually too tough, but a few minutes later, it’s perfect: no longer a major jaw workout, but still al dente, for lack of a different term. When the farro is ready, drain it, and set aside.

While the farro is cooking, put the lentils into another medium saucepan. Add 3 cups of cold water and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not falling apart, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, and rinse briefly under cool water.

By this point, ideally, your onions will be nicely caramelized. Now combine it all – onions, farro, and lentils – in a bowl and stir gently. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve with feta crumbled on top and, if you like, hot sauce and/or a squeeze of lemon.

Note: Leftovers keep nicely in the fridge. Rewarm slightly before eating.

Yield: 3-4 servings


The truth is

I have to tell you something sort of unpleasant today, but somehow, I don’t think you’re going to be surprised: I have not been doing much cooking lately.

I was hoping to be able to avoid the topic, but I can’t. There is a lot going on over here, and you can see it as clearly as I can, so there’s no point in trying to fool anyone. The truth is, for the past week, we’ve been living on a pot of pinto beans spiked with Tapatio, four steamed artichokes, a few pans of scrambled eggs, a quart of ice cream, one bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and one bag of Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch Doritos. I am not too proud to admit it. I am also not too proud to blame Delancey. In fact, I totally blame Delancey, with all my heart. Yesterday, I managed to roast some parsnips for lunch, and I felt so pleased with myself, so absolutely elated,
as though I’d suddenly discovered that my oven door opened directly into Narnia. It was really something.

Not as great a something, though, as the roasted asparagus with walnut crema that I made for dinner a few hours later. The oven and I were on a roll.

I found the recipe in A16: Food + Wine, by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren, executive chef and wine director, respectively, of the restaurant A16. I’ve wanted to go to A16 for a long time now, but somehow, whenever I’m in San Francisco, I wind up so distracted by every option on every street corner that I completely forget what I went there for. I think sensory overstimulation is a requirement for any proper visit to the Bay Area, so I don’t fight it too hard, though it means, sadly, that I have never been to A16. Luckily, the book makes a happy stopgap. It’s visually stunning - clean but warm, with lots of luminous photographs on sturdy matte paper - and the recipes walk a fine, perfect line between simple and complex, rustic food and restaurant food. It’s the kind of cookbook I feel inclined to keep on the nightstand, so that I can read it in bed. Just this past weekend, it won Book of the Year in the 2009 IACP Cookbook Awards, so if you need a really firm, serious endorsement, there you go. It also contains the most inspired asparagus recipe I’ve run across in ages, which is why I’m rattling on and on like this.

It was 70 degrees in Seattle yesterday, unreal for April 6, and I decided to mark the occasion by driving with the windows down and buying some asparagus. The A16 book was lying on the coffee table in the living room, and at some point in the afternoon, I picked it up to put it somewhere else, and when I did, it fell open to page 102, the recipe for Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema and Pecorino Tartufo. I took it as a sign. From Narnia.

The recipe title sounds fancy, and the finished dish tastes fancy, too, but in essence, it’s very straightforward. First, you make the walnut crema. You bring some water to a boil, toss in some walnuts, and cook them until they’re tender to the tooth. While this is going on, you sweat some red onion in a skillet. Then you dump both items into the food processor with some of the walnut-blanching water, blend it all up, and then pour in olive oil while you blend it some more. The resulting mixture, now worthy of the handsome word crema, looks a little like hummus, but it tastes somehow more like a distant cousin of pesto: fragrant, rich, and deeply savory. You spoon it onto a platter, top it with roasted asparagus, shave some ribbons of pecorino over the whole thing, and splash it with olive oil. The pecorino melts against the hot asparagus, and it’s salty and tangy, and the walnut crema sort of slithers beneath it all, subtle but beguiling. We scraped our plates, and then we had it again for lunch today.

Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema and Pecorino
Adapted from A16: Food + Wine

The original version of this recipe calls for Pecorino Tartufo, a sheep’s milk cheese with black truffle, but barring that, any aged pecorino works nicely. I used Pecorino Romano. The original recipe also calls for finishing the dish with some toasted walnuts, but I skipped that part. The walnut crema carried plenty of nut flavor for me, and I thought that anything more was overkill. Maybe I’m weird. Either way, I finished mine with a squeeze of lemon, and it was a nice counterbalance to the richness of the crema.

This recipe is intended to serve six, and even if you don’t need to feed that many, I would go ahead and make the full amount of crema. It will keep in the fridge for a few days, and you can roast the asparagus as needed. (One bunch is perfect for two people.) Also, Brandon has a hunch that leftover crema would make a terrific sauce for pasta, tossed with fresh garlic, lemon, and a little Italian parsley.

For walnut crema:
Kosher salt
1 ½ cups raw walnuts
½ cup plus 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced (about 1 cup)

For asparagus:
3 bunches fat asparagus (about 30 spears, total)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
1 block Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Tartufo
Lemon wedges, optional

To make the walnut crema, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the walnuts, and blanch for 8 to 10 minutes, or until tender in the middle. (I pulled mine out after 8 minutes, thinking that they seemed tender enough, but I should have left them for the full 10 minutes. My finished crema was slightly grainy, probably meaning that my walnuts weren’t soft enough.) Drain the walnuts, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking water. Set aside separately.

In a small skillet, warm 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt, and sweat for about 7 minutes, or until golden brown and softened. Remove from the heat.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the walnuts, the reserved cooking water, and the onion, and process until creamy. Taste for seasoning: it will probably need a decent amount of salt. With the motor running, slowly add ½ cup olive oil, processing until blended. The crema should have the consistency of a creamy hummus. If it seems too thick, add a little water. Taste again for seasoning, and then transfer to a bowl or other container. Cover, and hold at room temperature. (Crema can be stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for a few days. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil.

Snap the tough ends from the asparagus spears. Rinse them, and then dry them well. Spread them in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets. Drizzle them lightly with olive oil, and roll them around, smearing the oil with your hands, to coat evenly. Season with kosher salt. Bake for about 8 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice, until blistered, slightly charred, and tender.

To serve, spoon the crema evenly across the bottom of a platter. Arrange the asparagus spears on top. Working quickly, while the asparagus is still hot, shave Pecorino generously over the platter. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, and serve immediately, with a squeeze of lemon, if you like.

Yield: 6 (first-course) servings